An earnest plea to rabbis for non-partisan sermons this Yom Kippur

To American Jewish rabbis, Left and Right: this Yom Kippur, please don’t waste your prime sermon time on partisanship.

A sign with an image of late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is displayed during a vigil following her death, outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., September 19, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
A sign with an image of late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is displayed during a vigil following her death, outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., September 19, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
The Rosh Hashanah death of the 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice and liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg has sent the already edgy American Jewish community into a tizzy. One synagogue replaced the traditional Rosh Hashanah haftarah – a portion from the Prophets following the Torah portion reading on Shabbat, holidays and fast days – with an earnest but culture-clashing and cringe-worthy singing of Ginsburg’s best-known quotes to the traditional haftarah cantillation, to hail her as a modern “prophet.”
Ginsburg’s death has intensified the angst and rage Donald Trump triggers among at least two-thirds of American Jews, shifting the fight over the Supreme Court’s composition from a theoretical concern to a five-alarm fire. Many rabbis will be tempted to recast their Yom Kippur sermons into passionate appeals to preserve RBG’s legacy by defeating Donald Trump. Others will simply reinforce the partisan sermons they already drafted with loving references to Justice Ginsburg.
I offer one piece of advice: Don’t do it.
It’s time for what’s becoming my annual Yom Kippur appeal... to American Jewish rabbis, Left and Right: please don’t waste your prime sermon time on partisanship. Remember, you chose rabbinical school over the Kennedy School, so talk Judaism, not politics.
Frankly, few American Jews need your political two-cents. America’s electorate is highly polarized, remarkably resolute – one poll found only one percent of Americans “unsure” what they thought about Trump – and your congregants were probably not among that mini-minority. Your congregation also probably knows by now whether you love Donald Trump or loathe him, whether you despise Bibi or worship him.
Rather than being a virtue-signaling, Rabbi Obvious, why not work harder to surprise, challenge, transcend? Help your congregants stretch spiritually, morally, religiously, or ideologically, especially this year. Isn’t it your duty on Yom Kippur to help free Jews from their hyper-partisan clench or, at least, offer a break from politics?
One prominent American Jewish leader who must remain anonymous told me, cleverly: “I don’t know about you, but I will be praying to Hashem, not to the leader of any political party.” She wondered: “How do we elevate ourselves and each other into something that brings meaning and beauty and joy?”
Kol Nidre has become the American Jewish synagogue’s Super Bowl, nabbing the year’s biggest audience. It’s tempting to grab attention and get the blood boiling by participating in those two popular American Jewish sports: Trump-bashing and hand-wringing about Israel, especially “Bibi’s Israel.”
Beyond undermining all your rhetoric denouncing evangelicals for thinking God has an opinion about modern American politics, and beyond potentially alienating some congregants who dare to think otherwise, ask yourselves: Would such partisan speechifying suit the day?
LEVITICUS DESCRIBES Yom Kippur as a day of “Holy convocation.” Politics is the realm of the profane, not the sacred. Jews should “afflict our souls” – not walk away self-satisfied, feeling how wonderful we are and how primitive our rivals are. And on this “Sabbath of solemn rest,” why not start by giving shrill politics a rest?
Besides, this year, many other pressing, profound questions abound: about coping with illness and death; with financial loss or your good fortune while others suffer; with isolation and uncertainty. Although thornier than praising or bashing Trump, these issues are worth exploring, as are traditional questions about repentance and forgiveness, about deepening commitments to Israel and Judaism, to building community and doing good.
Finally, here’s a real exercise in moral growth. Can the third of the American Jewish community that’s pro-Trump, at least acknowledge his loutishness, his brutishness, and his monstrous insistence on only leading those who support him – while trash-talking everyone else? That’s petty bullying, not patriotic leadership.
Meanwhile, for the two-thirds part that’s anti-Trump, at least acknowledge his Middle East successes. Appreciate the Trump-Bibi breakthrough with the UAE and Bahrain. Go ahead, vote for Joe Biden – he’s a more moral, centered, leader – but use whatever leverage you might now have on Biden to ensure that – if he wins – he doesn’t replicate Obama’s blind spots regarding Iranian dictators and Palestinian terrorists.
Although people claim we live in confusing times, it’s clarifying when some “Peace Now” types who have urged Israel to make peace with terrorist dictators for decades, suddenly mock Netanyahu for making peace with autocrats. Alas, Israel has no democratic neighbors to befriend. This anti-Abraham Accords grumbling – even as other Arabs rush to make this real peace now – suggests that “Peace Now” might mean “Appeasement of Palestinian Terrorism Always.”
The UAE breakthrough should teach Palestinians and their apologists that the Arab world is increasingly fed up with Palestinian rigidity and rejectionism. Moreover, you build peace from the bottom up, which is why the Palestinians’ knee-jerk spurning of normalization strategy is so self-defeating. Palestinian demagogues have been undermining peace attempts for decades, banning the most benign contacts that the Emirates proved could establish an infrastructure for peace. Inexcusably, many “pro-Peace” Jews and non-Jews collaborate in the crimes, validating Palestinians’ maximalist demands without holding them responsible for their destructive actions.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not some RBG cartoon character. She was a complex, subtle thinker, who could critique friends’ arguments while learning from her opponents. Beyond befriending conservatives like Antonin Scalia, she warned about America’s growing extreme partisanship, about “a loss of the willingness to listen to people with views other than one’s own,” only paying attention to your “own home crowd,” while tuning “out other voices.”
Ironically, by parking their partisanship, rabbis will not only be doing their jobs as Jewish spiritual leaders, they could be doing Justice Ginsburg true honor, by living her views as tolerant, truly liberal Jews, not doctrinaire ideologues.
The writer was recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life.” A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.